Preserving Our Collections: the Richard P. Strong Papers

By , August 20, 2014
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Richard P. Strong with a microscope on the Amazon River, ca. 1924. Image courtesy of the Center for the History of Medicine, Countway Library.

Occasionally, the Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library has an opportunity to address the preservation needs of older collections being stored in problematic housing. In the case of the Richard Pearson Strong Papers, 1911-2004 (inclusive), 1911-1945 (bulk), archivists recently took the opportunity to transfer 69 ft. of records from older, overstuffed, acidic manuscript boxes into spacious,  acid-free, archival quality records center cartons. These important preservation steps ensure continued access to the collection over time, and also gave archivists a unique opportunity to provide additional context within folder labels to benefit future researchers.

Richard Strong (1872-1948)  became the first professor of tropical medicine at Harvard in 1913, and between 1913 and 1934 made several expeditions to  South and Central America and Africa to investigate diseases and obtain material for his laboratory and teaching work. After retiring from Harvard in 1938, he volunteered to teach in the Army Medical School during the Second World War. During this period Strong was the foremost authority in the U.S. in the field of tropical medicine. Throughout his career he participated in many international commissions investigating disease control.

The Richard Pearson Strong Papers are a popular research tool at the Center, with material ranging from Harvard teaching and departmental records, to expedition records such as diaries, notes, supply and equipment lists, and manuscripts of lectures and reports. His correspondence includes exchanges with Harvard associates, scientists, U.S. and foreign public officials, former President Coolidge, missionaries, and organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation. Strong’s expeditions included visits to Peru (1913 and 1937), Brazil (1924), Liberia and the Belgian Congo (1926-1927 and 1934), Guatemala (1931-1932), and the Yucatan (1931). A 1934 film of the Harvard African Expedition, in which Strong investigates diseases and obtains material for his laboratory and teaching work, has been digitized and made available online through OnView here.

Until recently, Strong’s collection was being stored in older, overstuffed, acidic boxes, which over time leads to deterioration and discoloration. Folder tabs with crucial contextual information had lost their adhesive and were falling off of their respective folders. Unnecessary metal accoutrements, such as paper clips and staples, contributed additional damage to fragile records. Reference staff also noted that the contents within each box had, over time, fallen out of their original order — likely due to the fact that the older manuscript boxes were too small to accommodate them.

As part of crucial preservation efforts, Center staff took careful measures to rehouse materials, remove unnecessary paper clips and staples, and restore the original order of each box. Delicate fabrics, such as academic garments and banners, were folded with non-buffered tissue and rehoused in customized acid-free boxes. Staff also took the opportunity to add additional context (such as date ranges) to new folder labels, which will in turn provide better context to future researchers.

Such important preservation steps ensure both the protection of the Richard P. Strong Papers and the availability and utility of these records to Center researchers for years to come.

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